In June, US polling organisation Zoogby International made a surprising discovery: of six Arab states’ leaders, it found that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was the most popular on the Arab street, ahead of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The public acclaim reflects the Syrian leader’s political recovery from the troubled aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005.

As a UN-led investigation into the killing shone unwelcome light on Syrian interference in its neighbour’s affairs, the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon proved a humiliating experience for a man who had struggled to find the assurance that came so naturally to his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad.

But the Syrian leader’s steadfastness in the face of the Bush administration’s assault on the regime, which began in 2004 with the imposition of economic sanctions, has helped to shift the regional balance of diplomatic power back in Damascus’s favour.

The failure of Israel’s 2006 military effort to deliver a lasting blow to Syria’s ally, Hezbollah, was a critical turning point in Al-Assad’s fortunes. Syria’s president now cuts a more confident figure on the regional stage.

Since the May 2008 Doha Agreement, which paved the way for Lebanon’s parliamentary elections in June 2009, Syria has proved itself capable of good behaviour towards it neighbour. Indeed, the surprise result of the Lebanese ballot Ð delivering Saad Hariri as Beirut’s prime minister-designate at the head of a broadly anti-Syrian coalition Ð has not unduly knocked Syria’s confidence.

Last month, Al-Assad met outgoing Lebanese premier Fuad Siniora, a move that was welcomed by those trying to form Lebanon’s new government.

Policy change

According to diplomatic sources, the prospect of a Western/Saudi-backed majority government has not caused alarm, since the Doha Agreement explicitly granted Syria’s Lebanese allies veto power on key areas of policy, ensuring that Syrian interests will be protected, whoever is prime minister.

The reward for Damascus’s diplomacy is the re-engagement of two powerful players: the US and Saudi Arabia. President Barack Obama’s decision to dispatch an ambassador to Damascus in July, after a four-year hiatus, marks a significant change in US policy towards the one-time member of the ‘axis of evil’.

Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, has met twice in recent months with the Syrian president and, on his last visit, on 26 July, emphasised Syria’s critical role in helping to bring about an Arab-Israeli peace agreement.

For Syria, this diplomatic thrust should yield an easing of US sanctions, with American officials hinting at a removal of punitive measures on a case-by-case basis. Mitchell has said that the government would listen sympathetically to requests to import non-sensitive US equipment.

Al-Assad travelled to Jeddah for talks with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in late September. The partial rapprochement with Washington has been matched by an improvement in Syria’s troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“That Saudi Arabia has taken off the pressure is important,” says Josh Landis, a Syria expert at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The Saudis understood their only option was to make up to the Syrians and find a face-saving compromise, which is what the Doha Agreement allowed for.”

Stopping dissent

The US/Saudi rapprochement has little influence on political reform inside Syria. Over the past couple of years, the Syrian gov­ernment has focused its policy efforts on economic reform, with deputy prime minister Abdullah Dardari dismantling investment barriers and laying the foundations of a genuine market economy.

Human rights transgressions are still evident and there is no clear evidence that the government is becoming more progressive on this front. Despite the release from jail in May 2009 of the most prominent Syrian political dissident, Michel Kilo, the regime continues to arrest opposition figures. Activists say as many as 6,000 dissidents are still in jail.

Syrian officials say there is a process under way to modernise all laws and regulations, with a growing focus on social reform. In early July, a government decree set a minimum custodial sentence of two years for ‘honour crimes’, amending Article 548 of the penal code, which previously exempted men from jail sentences for murder and assault in such cases.

Other legal reforms include a measure to allow women to pass down citizenship.

Al-Assad will continue to keep a lid on dissent while boosting economic freedom. He has bolstered his position, removing his powerful brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, as head of military intelligence in the summer.

Internal power struggles are a given in Syria, but diplomats say that Al-Assad is in a stronger position now than at any time in his nine-year presidency.